On the merits of Yellowface

why casting the “best” actor for the role is actually just a selection of bias in a racist system

In response to the protest and aftermath of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ now canceled production of The Mikado, this series addresses the racist performance and casting practices of Yellowface in the American Theatre. This series was curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for HowlRound.

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In the backlash of yellowface casting in The Mikado, a long-held argument has resurfaced, one that is both patently false and dangerous. That argument is the one for meritocracy; that regardless of race we must protect and advocate for the integrity of the art. That argument is this: a part should go to the best actor for the role.

Define “best.” Best as in most qualified? The person with the most credits? That’s not a great measurement.

We could measure best by technical measurements—height, singing ability, body type, etc.

Let’s go with this: The best actor is the one who best fits what the creative team wants.

So it’s up to the creative team to decide who is best. As a director, let me tell you the God’s honest truth: If all those things are equal (or close), I’m going with the person I know. Or the person who’s worked with people I know.

An actor can give an amazing audition and change my mind. But the bias of experience is that if I’m directing, I’m counting on this person to be able to deliver when they get on stage or set. And how do I know they will? Most likely because I’ve seen them do it before—either in the audition, in another show, or because I’ve worked with them.

That’s my bias as a director. I’m sure I have others, as do many people who cast shows. But that’s my point: the best is subjective. In Joy Meads’ exceptional article in American Theatre Magazine, she examines the deeply held biases that are ingrained in our society, even those of us who consider ourselves open minded:

None of us is immune. “Bias is as natural to the human condition as breathing,” Ross says. And, crucially, research has shown that we sometimes bear unconscious bias against our will, and even when it conflicts with our conscious values and beliefs. Indeed, researchers have found unconscious bias in people who believe deeply in racial and gender equality.

We like to think that our field functions as a meritocracy. That if you are talented, work hard, and get a few lucky breaks, you will have a career. But that is not true, especially if you are a woman or a person of color.

When we pretend that theatre is a meritocracy where the best actor gets the job, and that people who don’t get jobs are less talented, then we continue to enforce the idea that theatre is some magical utopia where bias (which we like to call taste) doesn’t exist.

cartoon of the american dream as a board game
by David Horsey for the Los Angeles Times.

The most clear bias in our white supremacist society is that white is universal, better, more preferred. And why not? History is written by the winners, and history books tell us that white people created America, invented theatre, and created The Mikado. The people casting are most likely white.

So how do we pick the best actor? Talent is required, yes. Work ethic, sure. But the last and most key one is this: you have to fit into the big-ass blind spot of meritocracy called bias.

Every human being has different tastes and biases. When we pretend that theatre is a meritocracy where the best actor gets the job, and that people who don’t get jobs are less talented, then we continue to enforce the idea that theatre is some magical utopia where bias (which we like to call taste) doesn’t exist.

What is theatre if not a meritocracy? When we complain that our field is not a meritocracy, one of our most popular arguments is: it’s about the power of your network, i.e., “who you know.” It becomes a system in which those who have access to resources are far more likely to succeed than those who do not. That access takes many forms: education/training, networks, gender, etc.

cartoon about meritocracy
by Josh Chiang.

I can hear the actors protest: “But I’m good and talented, that’s why I work.”

Actually, as many actors, especially those of color can tell you, that’s NOT why you work. You work because you seem familiar to those behind the table, because often those people are white. If you’re not trained and talented you don’t get into the room. But if you’re trained and talented and white, you have an advantage. Why? Because all major media—the news, the movies your directors grew up on, the television you’ve been watching—tells us that the primacy of the American narrative is the experience of white, cis-gendered, able-bodied male. He can portray an Indian, an Asian, or whatever else the story calls for him to be. We like to call it “universal.” So that bias exists in all of us, even those of us who exist outside of that narrative.

To quote Viola Davis: “The only thing standing between women of color and everyone else is opportunity.” Opportunity is not just being in the room to audition; its being truly considered for the role based on the totality of your artistry, including race. Opportunity requires people to see through their biases and take a chance.

But this is theatre, right? Where we can have fun, play pretend, etc. So why can’t white people pretend to be Asian?

Because we have the actors to play the roles. Because it reinforces stereotypes. Because of so many reasons, but mostly because it takes away the humanity of entire community. Theatre is better than that; it’s an art form that aspires. It should be a place where we aspire for a better world and inspire others to create it. If it can’t do that, then can we at least reflect the world we live in now?

To the people wondering about why these jobs just don’t go to the best actor: put some representatives of the culture being portrayed in charge and let them decide who the best person to represent them is. And respect it, because white people never have to worry about representation on stage.

And to those who want to continue to perpetrate yellowface on the American stage: you have every right to do that. Just know that with that choice, with the revelation of that bias, there are communities that you are damaging, you are re-enacting racist practices, and there will be people who stand against you.

It has nothing to do with who the best actor is. And everything to do with who the better person is.

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Thoughts from the curator

In response to the protest and aftermath of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ now canceled production of The Mikado, this series addresses the racist performance and casting practices of Yellowface in the American Theatre.

Yellowface in the American Theatre

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A relevant fact: the British government banned productions of The Mikado during a state visit of the Crown Prince of Japan in 1907 out of a concern he would find it offensive. So, this understanding that the play is pretty racist is not exactly new.

"believing the Crown Prince of Japan [...] would find it offensive" and "understanding that the play is pretty racist" are two different things.

In particular, most early concerns focused on the depiction of the Japanese Emperor (i.e. it was feared the portrayal of character of "the Mikado" might be considered lese majesty), an aspect that today's Asian-American critics of the play mostly ignore.

There's a good article about the 1907 ban, "The Banned Mikado: a Topsy-Turvey Incident", by E. P. Lawrence, which is very relevant to today's discussion, though it was written in 1974.

Interesting and stimulating piece... but brings up for me an interesting problem: if bias is embedded in "taste" then by disabling bias do we disable "taste" -- which is often the gut level response that drives an aesthetic vision? Because these things can't be separated. By coming from a careful, circumspect place (I think a lot about Selma Blair's amazing "Don't be racist... don't be racist" scene in Solondz's STORYTELLING) does this also and necessarily dampen or disable the impulsive self that makes art, that makes artistic choices? (Choosing is a form of discrimination as well). Thanks, and this gives me a lot of chew on.

taking obvious things into account..such as women in their 30s being called to audition for a part that requires , *woman in her 30s"... we are then faced with the question of whether whoever is cast is the best actress for the part..ie is it a meritocracy..well no it isnt , its all to do with a combination of factors that may or may not include merit, notwithstanding casting directors personal preferences with looks,and this is entirely their discretion

The Mikado was created by an English playwright and set in Japan so that he could satirize English politics and culture. In that light I'm not going to tell people the cast which has ridiculously non-Japanese names, must be ethnically Asian.

This idea that privilege is what makes people successful is not only stupid, it's also racist in the most Nazi of traditions, and evil. In fact, it was the universities teaching Volkish ideology that Jews had somehow priveledged themselves at the expense of the German people that created the holocaust. Now we have the same jerkwads teaching the exact same ideology under the guise of "social justice". What do you think the end result will be of telling people to blame their failures on others? The pictures above ignore HUGE chunks of American History. Just as a point of fact the wealth that resulted from slave labor was almost completely wiped out during the Civil War.

Asian people in general are running circles around Caucasians economically. I agree that as a group Asian men face the most racism and discrimination in media and in arts. I don't think that will hold them back. So long as they don't fall prey to the racial grievance industry they will continue to achieve and eventually dominate these fields.

I just finished a book called "The Vampire Economy" about Nazi economic practices written in 1939 at the height of their power. It's an amazing read and I highly recommend it.

Yoon Eun-hye - from Lie to MeLee Min-jung - from Cunning Single Lady

Ku Hye-sun - from Boys Over Flowers

There are many more I can't name straight away. The lady from City Hunter has serious talent. I watched a Taiwanese show some time back and the lead actress was fantastic! I watch a lot of Korean Drama, and also some Japanese shows like Death Note.

You say Asian men face racism and discrimination in media and arts, but you "don't think that will hold them back"? I don't understand the logic here. How do you define racism? Discrimination?

The fact is that there is a mountain of research demonstrating the fact that people--often even people who abhor racism and sexism--will often judge the same work sample more harshly if they believe it was created by a woman or a person of color. This has been proven time and time again, in study after study.

Your nazi analogy is unsound. Nazis drove cars too, but not everyone who drives a car is a Nazi. Furthermore, we are colleagues and mature adults. There's no need to resort to such inflammatory rhetoric.

Well done, Nalson. This is a very clear and compelling article debunking the myth of meritocracy in casting. I like that you point out that there really is no such thing as unbiased casting. We all have conscious and unconscious biases that affect how we see the world, no matter how vociferously we protest that we don't. Recognizing that bias innevitably exists in the casting process may help those behind the table re-define what it means to choose the "best" actor for the role.

Excellent and stimulating article, Nelson. It´s refreshing to read someone speak passionately and truthfully about something that pervades the theater world, particularly in diverse communities such as the United States, and yet which as a professional industry we seem to be clumsy at discussing intelligently.

Racism, discrimination, and prejudice exist in America (as well as elsewhere). Yet people who work in the theater seem to believe that it only exists "over there", in every other field, profession, industry, sector. Or, perhaps a few brave souls are willing to concede that it happens....infrequently....but always somewhere else, someone else. Everyone who participates in this dialogue has been practicing best practices of equality and fairness, forever, have a totally unblemished record as humans and theater professionals, and become role models of how to do it. It´s all about merit--about the work, the talent.

To quote Hemingway, "Isn´t it pretty to think so?"

i dont understand how if ur a woman or person of colour there would be a bias with regards acting.. fi the role requires a woman in her 30s and u as a 50 year old man declare bias because your not being seen for it, would this be reasonable? or am I missing something here

true, race is biologically meaningless. But for centuries upon centuries it has been endowed by us humans with a great deal of meaning. We can't rid ourselves of all of that accumulated prejudice overnight, and research proves racism is still a powerful force in America today. Here's some proof: http://www.huffingtonpost.c...

There's plenty more out there, if you want to learn more about the subject.

You are right now obsessing over something that doesn't biologically exist. By your actions you are teaching MORE people to believe race is an important determining factor. If that where truly the case, then the article you referenced would include Asians, Jews, Nigerians... and many other groups who are performing much better than Caucasians. They don't include these groups because it contradicts the essential lie they are telling. Racism is no longer a meaningful impediment to economic advancement... and that is a measurable fact. Liars will always try to convince you that there is a problem so that you will buy their solution without thinking.

It isn't racists who pose the greatest threat to ending racism. It is instead well meaning fools who obsess over race and convince people that they should give up and never try believing that society at large is too racist to permit their achievement.

and what is that something?, actors get roles according to type , looks, ethnicity , as well as merit, you cant play a black slave from 19th century slave trade if you are white...or am i wrong? no i am not

I've also worked as a director and casting director.I cast totally on acting ability, not type in anyway,nor having a quota.If though, minorities can play a role that is of anglo-saxon white i.e. Hamlet, Willy Loman,etc., as well as parts of their ethnicities, then anglo-saxon white actors should be able to play Asian parts, Black parts (i.e. Othello) , Arab roles, roles with disabilities, etc. Otherwise , it is a major hypocrisy. If it goes the route of what I said above, that is not true 'equality',it is 'having your cake and eat it too'. Can't have it both ways.At least I can't support that.It is about acting ability ,and doing challenging roles.

1. REALITY.Actually, white actors HAVE been playing non-white roles for hundreds of years. Sometimes for "utility" even though there were appropriate actors available; sometimes for racist commentary and/or outright derision. Albeit far more rare, this is still going on, which is why people are talking about it lately. This practice could also very well be described as "having your cake and eating it too." BECAUSE ACCESS IS UNEQUAL, MERITOCRACY IS A MYTH.

2. RACISM. "If though, minorities can play a role that is of anglo-saxon white i.e. Hamlet, Willy Loman,etc." This statement is the one you need to look at. Make sure that the characters you are talking about are actually "white characters." AS WHITE IS THE DEFAULT in Europe and America, are these roles actually written as white (it says so in the character description, or they mention it in the script somewhere, or it is germane to the actual plot), or are they just TRADITIONALLY CAST with white people, because the author and the director and the producers and everyone involved with these decisions were white until pretty much now? Raisin In the Sun is about a black family struggling specifically because they are black. It is a plot point. Death of a Salesman is not about a white salesman struggling because he is white. That is not a plot point. So unless Arthur Miller specifically described Willy Loman as a white man in the play, he is not white. Racism is a SYSTEM, not an attitude or feeling. It has to do with these long-standing "traditions."

3. BIAS. To assume that you are unbiased is naive and warrants exploration. Everyone has biases. For instance, if you always choose the "best" actor...what constitutes "best" for you? As this is not a mathematical equation, bias is going to come into play unless you are consciously, actively trying to go against it.

4. ACCESS. Look into how many roles are written for non-white actors vs. actors of color. Then, because generally the response to that statement is "write your own roles," look into how many non-white casting directors, directors, agents, producers and presenters there have been. This would take a bit of doing. Let me help...it is disproportionately white. These are the people who control greenlighting if there are any writers of color, or any roles of color, much less if any actors of color get to play any roles at all, or if any actors of color are even sent in to audition for these roles. Again, remember, gatekeepers tend to let those who look like themselves in the gate. Not necessarily on purpose.

--This is just a short primer on "equality"...that is, the lack thereof. Racism is a system that constantly reinforces itself and therefore needs constant, relentless challenge. It is uncomfortable. I hope that, as a director and casting director, you take up that challenge. This could help: http://goodmenproject.com/f...

Thank you for engaging!

I've been a professional actor for 30yrs, graduated from a professional acting conservatory.I'm 5'6", ethnic looking (Al Pacino-Dustion Hoffman mix in their younger days). Lucky enough, I've worked with those that cast on acting merit, not physical type.So have done leads roles. But the majority of the time, I'm supporting cast, or sidekick due to physical type.If there is a cry out for equality in the acting world (which I'm all for),then it has to be for all i.e. fat, short, ugly, average,etc., not just ethnic minority actors.It's all or nothing,otherwise I can't personally support it.